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from the May 2014 issue

Andres Neuman’s “Talking to Ourselves”

Reviewed by Anne Posten

"Talking to Ourselves" considers our defenses against loss—it sees language and its arguable opposite, sex, as both weapons against and records of the inevitable.

A writer setting out to explore the subject of loss has several choices. She may go the Anne Carson route, collecting fragments of memory in an attempt to investigate and preserve what is known or not known about a loved one, while foregrounding the impossibility of such a task. Or she may go the Joyce Carol Oates route and stare “unflinchingly,” in the words of reviewers, into the gaping maw of pain and loss with concrete descriptions of grief and recovery. Alternatively, like Karen Green on the loss of her husband, she may write more abstractly about the mental and emotional tumult through which one must face the world—the vibrant, irreducible, incomprehensible world—after the death of a loved one. These models are all, however, largely nonfictional. Andrés Neuman, being a novelist, explores loss from multiple perspectives. Talking to Ourselves considers our defenses against loss—it sees language and its arguable opposite, sex, as both weapons against and records of the inevitable.

Talking to Ourselves, which is translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, is told from three perspectives: those of Mario, a dying man, Lito, his son, and Elena, his wife. Each narrator has a distinct voice and mode: Mario speaks into a tape recorder as a sort of fragmented letter to his son; Elena, the wife, writes in a journal; and Lito’s thoughts are conveyed to us directly. Great pains are taken by both the author and translators to distinguish these modes, which, combined with the effort to remind us that Lito has the thought processes and vocabulary of a child, can feel a bit forced at times. Mario’s language is less contrived but still self-conscious: he hems and haws—his chapters are strewn with “let’s see” and “bah” in a way that makes it feel as if we are reading the transcript of a David Foster Wallace interview. It’s a bit jerky, though largely accurate to the way people speak.

It is the Elena sections that really sing, and likely intentionally so. Though Lito’s voice is heard first and Mario is the “subject,” the pain of this story belongs to Elena. She copes with her husband’s impending and then recent death by reading, writing, and having wild, often violent sex with Mario’s doctor, Ezequiel Escalante. Elena’s reading list forms an intertextual panoply so extensive and varied (from Aira to Woolf through Bolaño and Némirovsky) that it merits a page-long translation note cum bibliography. It is in and through these intertexts that the questions at the heart of this book emerge. “I suspect,” Elena writes by way of introduction to her literary odyssey, “[Juan Gracia Armendáriz’s] book will be not so much a painkiller as a vaccine: it will inoculate me with the unease I am striving to overcome.”

The quoted texts reflect Elena’s life: they make her question it, they speak for her or with her or to her, they soothe her or anger her. They do not provide a cure for mortality or pain, but they are the nurses of the human condition. Tellingly, the quotes, often fragmentary and decontextualized, are incorporated into Elena’s own thoughts and sentences in such a way that the reader often has to study the quotation marks to parse Elena’s warp from the intertext’s woof. The integration of quotation and Elena/Neuman’s words is a particularly striking moment in the translation of this book, which is done with a respectfully light touch. Their translation makes us work a bit to understand the quote and original syntax, without frustrating or jarring us out of the world of the book.

Garcia and Caistor do not allow us to forget we are reading a translation, nor do we want to. Neuman’s voice(s) come through clearly and idiosyncratically without losing elegance. Even the moments where Lito’s voice comes off as heavy-handed feel like they are very much the work of the author, rather than the translators. Above all, these voices are conveyed confidently and consistently, which does much to smooth over any inflections that are less-than-convincing.

Translation is obviously important here, though explicitly mentioned only paratextually: “If writing allows us to talk to ourselves, reading and translating are very much like having a conversation,” Neuman writes in the “Note on Translations” at the end of the book. He refers, of course, to the book’s title, which hovers over and shapes the text. The moment when a book is read or translated, he implies, is the moment it steps out of the realm of solipsism, which is not to denigrate the act of “talking to ourselves” that writing constitutes. Even the book’s epigraph, by the Argentinian writer Hebe Uhart, underlines this paradox. Who is being addressed when she says “Don’t go thinking that what I’m telling you is something I tell everyone else”? Are we as readers invited into the conversations in a book, or are we intruding upon something intimate we’re not meant to see? Are we ever talking for anyone other than ourselves? But when we do, are we not at the same time considering, even yearning for, a response?

Our desire for response, and our selfish tendencies, are mirrored in the other great anti-loss weapon: sex. Elena’s affair with Dr. Escalante, later referred to simply as Ezequiel, is also a conversation of sorts, but one in which despite her narration, she is not the primary speaker. Ezequiel, whose name means “may God strengthen him,” drives the affair with an almost all-knowing calm and control. It is therefore both frustrating and appropriate that he has no voice in the story: here Elena is spoken to in a physical sense, here she escapes the cycle of talking to herself, because their “conversation” is beyond language—we do not hear it. Carnality opens a space that both makes Elena wholly present and alive and allows her the ultimate escape:

It didn’t take me long to realize that it was exactly what I needed. To reclaim my body. All of it, not just a part of it. An unmitigated punishment. A pain that would awaken me . . . I have orgasms that stretch the limits of my existence . . . I want to avenge myself on my own flesh.

In feeling pain, Elena recognizes the limits of her own mortality, which in turn makes her feel alive—she is awoken, “resurrected.” She betrays her husband in order to draw a sharper line between his death and her life, and therefore to be able to love him more fully.

Readers of Roberto Bolaño’s nonfiction may have realized that the kind of hyperbolic praise he applies to Neuman is both sincerely meant and liberally applied. Seemingly few Latin American writers of the generations before, after, and concurrent with Bolaño’s own escaped his seal of approval or predictions of preeminence. On the evidence of this slim volume, it is impossible to say whether this level of praise is warranted, but it is possible to say that the book is tightly crafted, beautiful, and quietly powerful. In this its closest parallel is perhaps the work of the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, whose similarly diminutive Private Lives of Trees also deals with loss and its specter in a small family. The questions raised in both books are challenging ones: How does one explain (or not explain) pain and mortality? With what tools can we make these great mysteries comprehensible, if not acceptable? Or, conversely, what is there in life beautiful enough to distract us from these burdensome truths? The fact that Neuman’s answer—that we talk, through words and the body, to ourselves and each other—is conditional and unsurprising, makes it no less true, and no less thrilling.

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